In the closing weeks of Russia’s massively costly effort to capture Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces found themselves in a bad position. Pressed into a reduced area west of the rail lines, Russian artillery could fire into their shrinking “citadel” from the north, south, and east. Compared with the pace Russian forces had achieved in the previous months of the battle, those final blocks of the city held by Ukrainian forces were reduced to rubble at an accelerated rate, with Wagner Group mercenaries moving in to occupy the smoldering ruins.
Though Russia has never technically occupied the last southwestern edge of the city, Ukrainian forces were effectively forced to give up their positions in Bakhmut by May 22. Holding those few remaining blocks was just too costly under a withering level of fire. No matter how many times Wagner CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin whined about lack of artillery support, Russia seemed to have no issues with expending thousands of shells to wreck the last buildings.
Soon after declaring victory in the nine-month battle, Prigozhin began withdrawing his mercenary force. Videos from May 25 show the Wagner boss welcoming his forces to “rear positions.” Since then, Wagner has reportedly continued to drain away from Bakhmut. Their positions have mostly been filled with regular Russian army forces, since the promised Chechen forces under Ramzan Kadyrov apparently got lost somewhere en route.
But just because Ukrainian forces are no longer in Bakhmut doesn’t mean the city has stopped being a death trap for Russia.
In the past two weeks, the number of actions around Bakhmut has significantly decreased. With Wagner gone, Russia has made no effort to push west out of the city. It’s now been over four days since the Ukrainian military reported any ground assault by Russian forces in and around Bakhmut.
It’s been so quiet that now, without the constant pressure to move forward, some Russians are reportedly panicking and having to be forced to hold positions. “The amount of killing that took place is really hard to imagine,” retired U.S. Col. Seth Krummrich told Al Jazeera on Tuesday. ”There’s rotting bodies, I’m sure, everywhere still.”
Still, just because no one is trying to move the front line at the moment doesn’t mean the city has actually fallen silent. Russian artillery is still hitting that area down around the entrance of the city east of Ivaniske. Russians are also shelling Ukrainian forces in the north from positions east of Yahidne.
But, in a reversal of what happened over the past few weeks, Ukrainian gains on the flanks of the city allow them to position mortars to do exactly what Russia was doing in the days leading up to May 22: concentrate fire into the western part of the city from multiple directions.
It’s not as if Ukraine has to be concerned about protecting landmarks or residences. Russia already took care of that issue. Russia must now occupy a city where they have specifically and systematically erased any cover positions. So congratulations to them … they’ve “won” Bakhmut.
And the prize isn’t more lopsided casualties, but entirely one-sided casualties. Not only can Ukraine fire into the city from flanking positions north and south, it can use longer-range weapons from higher ground on the west. Any concentration of Russian forces or equipment is subject to precision strikes from M777 artillery and even HIMARS if good enough targets present—and they may.
Before the Russian invasion, both Bakhmut and Soledar were mining cities. Beneath their streets are over 100 of tunnels driven through an ancient deposit of salt, some of them connecting chambers over 30 meters tall and many times as wide. The beautifully clear crystalline salt is what remains of what was once an inland sea, 250 million years ago, when Ukraine was part of the single vast continent of Pangea. Mining has taken place there since the salt was discovered in the 1880s, often serving as the primary economic engine for the region.
Now the mines beneath the shattered city have stopped producing. But they aren’t exactly empty. That’s because Russia is reportedly using them to store equipment and ammunition.
Multiple videos over the past few days have shown Russian trucks approaching the entrance to the mines. There are reports that this location is becoming a primary supply depot for Russian forces all along the eastern front.
At first glance, this seems like a pretty good idea. After all, Russia has had repeated issues with Ukrainian forces destroying their supply depots. As Ukraine has walked the rungs of effective striking range from HIMARS to GLSDB to Storm Shadow, even equipment held many kilometers from the front is no longer safe. With Russia’s well-established issues around logistics, keeping supply depots hundreds of kilometers back, or breaking them into dozens of smaller sites, has represented a significant problem.
Storing things in the salt mines must seem like a great idea. They’re dry, cool, and out of reach from any possible attack. They were already in use for storing documents before the war, so many areas are easily accessible by vehicles driving slowly along the white corridors of cut salt. And they’re so extensive that even if Ukraine did have a weapon capable of punching through to the tunnels below, they can’t be sure where Russia is storing their gear. So Russia finally has a safe spot to keep their valuables.
Except they don’t. Because while the mines may be extensive, the number of entrances is very limited. A few precision-guided weapons directed at locations like, say, 48.602302N, 38.036391E would mean that all the supplies Russia packed into those tunnels would become inaccessible.
Those supplies would also stay nice, dry, and ready until Ukraine moved into the area and cleared those entrances.
The list of daily Russian losses posted by the Ukrainian military almost certainly contains some exaggerations, but its day to day fluctuations usually give a good sense of just how intense the fighting is at a given moment. But when it comes to yesterday’s figures …
15 tanks. 12 APCs. 27 artillery. That’s a massive day. However, on that same day the Ukrainian military only reported 25 ground attacks, mostly in the well-trodden areas around Bilohorivka and Marinka. There were also failed Russian offensives reported at a village north of Kupyansk and Kuzemivka. The way Ukraine phrased that last attack suggests once again that this town northwest of Svatove is in Ukrainian control.
None of these seems to be the kind of major battle that would rack up the level of destruction noted in that daily report. There’s been a tendency to delay reporting of Ukrainian actions for 24 hours or more lately, so it could be that these figures are the result of a Ukrainian advance in some area. Or they may be the result of an unreported strike on a Russian base.
We’ll probably understand today’s numbers better sometime this weekend.
For all the destruction of Russian gear reported in this morning’s report, there are no new aircraft or helicopters added to the tally. That might not be the case tomorrow—at least if Ukraine includes aircraft lost inside Russia.
This appears to be separate from a drone attack that happened near the Russian city overnight. Kursk is around 90 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. That the city was hit with both drones and some kind of precision weapon within 24 hours seems to be another sign of Ukraine ramping up their actions in advance of the counteroffensive.
Unlike the United States, which has refused to allow its weapons to be used inside Russia, the U.K. has suggested pretty strongly that it begs to differ, and that Ukraine’s defense necessarily requires it to strike Russian soil. That would unleash the British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles for the kind of attack we saw in Kursk.
And speaking of a counteroffensive …
It’s beginning to look a lot like … tank season.
Images have emerged of the Freedom of Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps (known as RDK) attack south of Belgorod on Thursday, and what they reveal shocks no one: Russia was lying when it said they were stopped at the border.
Additional images show fighting around the Russian village of Novaya Tavolzhanka, right across the Ukrainian border, as well as more scenes from the larger town of Shebekino. The RDK report some members of their force were wounded, but their accounts don’t align at all with Russia’s claims that a large number from the anti-Putin faction were killed.
Overnight on Friday, there was another reported effort by the RDK near the Russian town of Verigovka, about 60 kilometers east of the action on Thursday. This fourth incursion was reported by Russian sources, but at 3 PM ET there were reportedly more than 100 RDK fighters in the area with reports of heavy fighting.
Russia seems to have a serious issue with protecting its border. They’re starting to realize that the front line isn’t just found inside Ukraine.
Russian state media is delighting on Friday in posting the words of Hungarian authoritarian leader Viktor Orban, who is insisting that any attempt at a Ukrainian counteroffensive will be a “bloodbath.”
But, according to him, as "a man with one and a half years of military experience", he "knows very well" that the attacking side will suffer three times more losses than the one defending.
I’m a man with barely one and a half weeks of military experience, but even I understand that’s not how it works. Theories of force concentration have traditionally held that a defending force has a 3:1 tactical advantage, meaning that it takes three times as many men to dislodge soldiers from a fortified defensive position as it does to hold that position.
That does not mean that the army on the offense loses men at a three-to-one rate. In fact, that number represents the level thought to be necessary for advance without taking undue losses.
“We must do everything possible,” said Orban, “before the counteroffensive, to convince the parties of the need for a ceasefire and peace negotiations," In other words, we have to stop Ukraine from taking Ukraine back and lock it down for Putin.
Don’t be surprised when this same language, including the same misunderstanding of force differential, shows up in the mouth of Majorie Taylor Greene or Tucker Carlson (wherever he is).
Skip to the 51-minute mark to see Secretary of State Tony Blinken take the stage and deliver some serious truth.
“The Kremlin often claimed that it had the second strongest military in the world and many believed it,” said Blinken. “Today, many see Russia’s military as the second strongest in Ukraine. Its equipment, technology, leadership structure, troops, strategy, tactics and morale—a case study in failure.”
Blinken also warned against those like Orban who are talking about “peace” in a form that rewards Russian aggression.
“A ceasefire that simply freezes current lines in place and enables Putin to consolidate control over the territory he seized and then rest, rearm and re-attack; that is not a just and lasting peace,” said Blinken.
Dimitri of WarTranslated has been doing the essential work of translating hours of Russian and Ukrainian video and audio during the invasion of Ukraine. He joins Markos and Kerry from London to talk about how he began this work by sifting through various sources. He is one of the only people translating information for English-speaking audiences. Dimitri’s followed the war since the beginning and has watched the evolution of the language and dispatches as the war has progressed.